In late 2007, according to a report in the New Yorker, Hawaiian-shirted representatives of Meridian Services Industry approached two Fijian beauticians in Suva and promised them up to five times their annual wages for work in a luxury hotel in Dubai. Vinnie Tuivaga and Lydia Qeraniu said goodbye to their families, handed over their passports, and flew to the United Arab Emirates. But this, it turned out, was only the first stop en route to US military bases in Iraq. Here they discovered that they were part of a 70 000-strong ‘invisible army’ of cooks, cleaners, construction workers, fast food clerks, hairdressers and electricians from countries such as the Philippines, Kenya, Bosnia and India servicing US military logistics contracts. In Iraq and Afghanistan, workers from poor nations launder uniforms, truck frozen steaks, repair electrical grids and supply the commercial ‘tastes of home’ to official military staff by manning the concessions of Taco Bell, Subway and Pizza Hut. Under complicated subcontracting arrangements, many, like Tuivaga and Qeraniu, have found they are virtual slaves, working seven days a week for almost nothing, with no compensation for injury or death, and with no options for repatriation until their contracts run out. For this privilege many have paid recruiters a small fortune.
The economy of war is now more complex than ever. While modernist conflicts, such as the First and Second World Wars, were fought by nation states harnessing mass armies and mass production, the distinction between private and national interests has since become increasingly difficult to make. This is without even factoring in the role of selected media with global reach officially ‘embedded’ in the war machine. The term ‘War on Terror’ sums up this inchoateness: in place of the precise locations of Afghanistan or Iraq we have an abstract, unlocated, perhaps insatiable emotional territory. Postmodern war is unsettlingly ubiquitous, truly global.
What does this mean for the war novel? Can it still make sense of things, or at least give a sense of these wars’ reach? Can it compete with the power of film and television, or even the relentless ‘reality hunger’, as David Shields puts it, of the news itself? Certainly, America seems to have been on high alert for the definitive novel out of Afghanistan and Iraq. The critical response to Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – both of which deal with the Iraq war – has been notable for its constant and desperate refrain that a ‘great novel’ should emerge from this conflict. Cover blurbists have fallen over themselves to hail Powers’ book as ‘the All Quiet on the Western Front of America’s Arab Wars’ (this from Tom Wolfe) and Fountain’s as the ‘Catch-22 of the Iraq War’. Each has featured on prize and best-of lists for the year, with Powers garnering the greater plaudits, his novel recently listed by the New York Times as one of the year’s top five. Yet it also feels, reading these books, that each was written in the shadow of this critical call for literary greatness.
This is particularly noticeable with The Yellow Birds. ‘The war tried to kill us in the spring,’ it begins portentously.
As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed a thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark.
In this self-conscious one-and-a-half-page opening, narrated by Private John Bartle, Powers places his novel firmly within the genre of ‘literary fiction’. The laboured attribution of intention to the war tells us this is an epic story: about not just one war, but War itself. It is a kind of mythic foe, but perhaps also an impersonal wilderness that will test body and soul, though the metaphor is awkward: ‘pioneers’ has heroic associations, but why or what pioneers might be ‘kneading’ – an activity for hands – is unclear.
Bartle’s retrospective first-person narration also establishes itself instantly as comfortingly recherché. This is not the balls-out, on-the-fly storytelling, broken and half-deranged by an insane war, often favoured by Vietnam War authors, as pioneered by journalist Michael Herr in his ground-breaking non-fiction book Dispatches (1977). Instead, it is the elegant, well-turned reflection from a calmer time. In this sense, Tom Wolfe is correct. We are, tonally at least, back in the territory of the First World War.
As John’s story moves back and forth between his 2004 and 2005 tours of duty in Al Tafar and his awkward readjustment to civilian life, we learn that something has happened to his buddy Murph, and that John is implicated. Powers’ control over this mystery at his novel’s heart is its great strength. Another is the intense relationship he sets up between Murph and John, green recruits from Virginia, and troop leader Sergeant Sterling, who, though not yet in his twenties, is already a decorated Middle East veteran. Sterling is a muscular embodiment of military logic itself, a characterisation that owes something to Robert Duvall’s depiction of Lieutenant Colonel (‘I love the small of napalm in the morning’) Bill Kilgore in the classic Vietnam film, Apocalypse Now (1979), which also borrowed heavily from Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Heart of Darkness.
Sterling, a compelling creation, certainly has the mysterious, almost Zen apartness of a Conradian hero, at least until he begins to lose it (in one of the novel’s best scenes, his troops observe him ritually sprinkling salt on the ground). A brilliant fighter, he wraps his ‘extraordinary’ aura around his men, especially John and chunky, blond, eighteen-year-old Murph, after assigning them to watch each other’s backs. ‘Don’t worry so much ladies,’ Sterling says. ‘You two just hold the tail … Let me fuck the dog.’ But there is a blank space inside Sterling. He ‘cared nothing for himself,’ John reflects later in the novel. ‘I’m not even sure he would have realized he was permitted to have his own desires and preferences. That it would have been OK for him to have a favourite place, to walk with satisfaction down the long, straight boulevards of whatever post he may have gone to next.’ For all his gruff paternalism, it is Sterling who senses that vulnerable Murph has at a certain point given up: he is already dead, he tells John. It is Sterling’s nihilistic sense of honour that will play into the terrible decision the men make about Murph.
The Yellow Birds captures the nightmarish atmosphere of house-to-house combat in Al Tafar, whose aging population still goes about its business between battles and the rotting bodies left on the streets. The mundane and horrific intermingle: residents sweep dusty shell-casings from their rooftops, bodies are rigged as human bombs. A dying young man’s last words are, ‘Hey, man, check if I shat in my pants.’ These details, especially those giving a sense of the almost medieval pace of life amid the high-tech weaponry (an old man hitches a three-legged donkey with a wooden leg to his cart, for example) are disturbing. The wider dimensions of this conflict make fleeting appearances: a mention of an embedded reporter, a young female medic killed by a mortar, an Iraqi translator hooded to protect his family from reprisals, the ‘Hajji mall’ set up outside the medics’ unit by Iraqi merchants to sell cheap watches.
But Powers is often too keen to force this world into mythic dimensions through overwriting. Women stand like ‘tired caryatids’ on a German brothel veranda; ‘green buds of spring … untether … themselves from the remains of winter’; snowflakes fall ‘like a shot dove’s feathers’. The novel also works hard to create a unifying symbolism: the flow of great rivers, and of course the ‘yellow birds’ of his title, which refer both to an army marching cadence and to John’s father’s canaries, who, rather than accepting their freedom when let out in the woods, returned to their cages.
Powers is himself a Virginian veteran of the Iraq War, having served as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar in 2004 and 2005, afterward gaining an MFA from the University of Texas — a publicist’s dream. It is impossible to read The Yellow Birds without being aware of this. Nor can I get out of my mind a certain quality of ‘MFA thoughtfulness’: the spun-glass approach that mars other celebrated recent novels like Paul Harding’s Tinkers (2009). Given the lip service America pays to its armed forces, there can be no doubt that this has contributed to the almost ecstatic reception of Powers’ book, which is accomplished but not extraordinary. The other contributing factor is surely that The Yellow Birds is such a reassuringly old-fashioned novel. Its soldiers seem, unusually, all white. Its gender relations are distinctly retro (John is briefly looked after by a kind-hearted prostitute in a German brothel). Most of all, there is its tranquil prose, which spools as smoothly as the Tigris River that bears away Murph’s remains. Although it is about a very modern war, it harks back to a time when a war might be knowable and poetic.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a much more complex and knowing novel that reads like a gloss on Powers’. Its subject is less the Iraq war than the American public’s almost unhinged longing for a ‘great’ war story. While Fountain also tells the story of an innocent young soldier from a small town facing the mad horrors of war – a narrative tradition that again goes back to Remarque – the harrowing-ground in which Private Billy Lynn’s odyssey occurs is not the Middle East but George W. Bush’s America.
Nineteen-year-old Billy is part of Bravo Company: eight young men decorated for extraordinary valour in Iraq. Bravo’s bravery at the Al-Ansakar Canal has been captured by an embedded journalist and aired on Fox News, causing a national sensation. And so the army has flown its heroes home (their dead brother-in-arms, the oracular Shroom, is in his coffin at the rear of the plane; another is in hospital) for a two-week, multi-state ‘Victory Tour’. This includes a bare 24 hours of home leave with their families, and culminates in a Thanksgiving Day gridiron game at the Texas Stadium – across which the entire novel unfolds – as VIP guests of the Dallas Cowboys. There is one thing the military’s PR machine doesn’t want the boys to mention: they will be shipped back the next day to Iraq to complete nine more months of duty.
As Billy Lynn begins, the boys are en route to the game in a limo, accompanied by Staff Sergeant Dime, another hyperactive Kilgore type, and listening to a film producer named Albert trying to strike a movie deal for their story. They are already ‘nicely blazed on Jack and Cokes’, torn between hooting admiration for Albert’s spiel (‘We’re gonna Platoon it’) and horror that one of them might be played by Hilary Swank. Billy, A-bort, Mango, Load, Sykes, and Crack are a more diverse bunch than Powers’ soldiers. Their creative and constant sledging is the ‘fuckwit conversation’ of the street. They fantastise about meeting Beyoncé and speculate on how much their ‘totally sick’ stadium tickets might be worth on eBay. But they are also painfully aware, especially virginal Billy, often the unwilling spokesman for his crew, that this will be yet another exhausting day of trying to satisfy their fellow Americans’ desires. Throughout the book these patriotic assaults, a kind of collective chorus, are rendered in a fragmented, New Journalistic prose:
One’s first impression is that the novel will be a derivative homage to Tom Wolfe, which is compounded by Fountain’s joyful torquing of his prose, purportedly to convey Billy’s thoughts: ‘There’s a slumpiness, a middle-aged sag to the Texas Stadium,’ he writes, ‘that suggests soft paunches and mushy prostates, gravity slugged masses of beached whaleness.’ But the novel is so consistently sharp and often so funny in its observations that it’s easy to forgive Fountain for having the volume up loud; and, as it settles down, Billy Lynn is also quite moving. This is particularly the case in a longish interlude recalling Billy’s bittersweet trip home to his conservative family in rural Texas. His sister was involved in a disabling car accident: when her boyfriend subsequently dumped her, Billy took a carjack to his Saab, only avoiding a felony charge by enlisting. He finds now, with a kind of admiring wonder, that her politics have radicalised and she wants him to leave the army.
Over the course of the novel, Billy drinks, asks for headache pills for his migraine but never gets them, and is told ‘Yew ARE America’ more times than he can bear. (He’s also freezing, but the army’s paternal care doesn’t extend to finding the boys coats.) He juggles texts from his sister, who has contacted a group who can help him go AWOL, and from young cheerleader Faison who, in a stolen moment, mistaking Billy’s confusion for faith, considers it her Christian duty to dry hump him.
In one of the novel’s best scenes, Billy finally meets the Cowboys in their locker room, who seem ‘more martial than any Bravo … bigger, stronger, thicker, badder’ as they put on their extraordinary padding. The overfed behemoths cluster around Billy, eager to know about his weaponry. ‘So whatchoo carry?’ ‘You carry a side?’ ‘M4, what kind a round it take?’ They want to know how it feels to kill someone, and he tries to tell them. (‘“Unh,” someone murmurs, as if biting into something juicy and sweet.’) A little later, the players corner him again. They’ve been thinking: ‘We, like, we wanna do something. Like we ride wit yall for a week, couple weeks, help out.’ It doesn’t work like that he tells them, but they could join the army. Fuck that, they tell him, ‘We got jobs.’
The tragedy and the humour of Fountain’s novel – and he manages the balance very well – is that his hero is not so naïve after all. He is bright enough to understand his place in the world and his ‘education in the realms of global bullshit’. On meeting Norm, the sententious owner of the Cowboys, and his rich friends who, if not quite as flawlessly handsome as movie actors, ‘certainly possess the vitality and style of … the people in Viagra advertisements,’ Billy realises that his dread of returning to Iraq is the ‘direst kind of poverty … This is what he truly envies of these people, the luxury of terror as a talking point and at this moment he feels so sorry for himself that he could break right down and cry.’ Of course, none of them offers him a post-war job. Fountain is refreshingly exact about economics. Albert hopes to get each boy $100 000 for his story. A Cowboys’ leather jacket is $679. The soldiers’ wages are a shocking $14 800 a year.
Bllly Lynn is sharply aware of working both within and against the narrative limits of the war novel in an era saturated with war as entertainment. Taking as his main story the meta-narrative of the Iraq war’s myth-making and reception, Fountain recycles the tired gestures of the Vietnam novel (the fractured prose, the madness, the disorientation and disillusionment) on homeland turf: but here, it seems, they have lost whatever power they had to prick the public conscience. They have become part of the problem, just another set of clichés through which the soldiers’ experience is owned. As Billy comes to realise about his fellow Americans, ‘his reality is their reality’s bitch.’ Finishing Fountain’s book I felt something I didn’t reading Powers’: anger. Buoying the novel, however, is the characters’ constant and very funny banter, which carries more life force than all the elegiac weight of Powers’ writing. Of course, there are more picaresque humiliations for them to endure before the game ends. Of course, the movie deal is doomed. Of course, it is unlikely Billy will see his cheerleader again.
Is Billy Lynn, then, the great novel of the ‘War on Terror’? Not quite, for all its brilliance. To my mind that book, at least so far, is Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs (2009): this counterintuitive masterpiece masquerades as a girl’s coming-of-age novel, and has only one strand dealing with Afghanistan (its heroine’s brother dies there), but it manages to make devastating connections between the war and America’s adoption industry, with its inhuman regulations and virtual selling of children. It is not so much of a stretch, perhaps, for a country of such careless people to shanghai its Vinnie Tuivagas and Lydia Qeranius. Though, as a reader, I am waiting for the novelist with a Dickensian anger at their heart, an Aravind Adiga or Lloyd Jones say, to tell the invisible army’s stories.
Taken together, Powers’ and Fountain’s novels make one wonder how, war after war, America can still remain so addicted to novels and films about the disillusionment of its callow young soldiers. At what point does shock turn into comforting repetition? This is something Billy Lynn also dares to broach: ‘The war is fucked? Well, duh … They hate our freedoms? Yo, they hate our actual guts! Billy suspects his fellow Americans secretly know better, but something in the land is stuck on teenage drama, on extravagant theatrics of ravaged innocence and soothing mud wallows of self-justifying pity.’ Or, as Susan Sontag put it more succinctly, not long after September 11: ‘Americans are always talking about losing their innocence, but then they always get it back again.’
David Shields, Reality Hunger: A manifesto (Hamish Hamilton, 2010).
Sarah Stillman, ‘The invisible army,’ The New Yorker (6 June 2011).
Gary Younge, ‘The risk taker,’ Guardian (19 January 2002).